Tuesday, 5 July 2022

Lewes Baroquefest – 20-23 July 2022

Lewes Baroquefest is back – 20-23 July, St Michael’s Church, Lewes. The festival, directed by John Hancorn and Julia Bishop, opens with ‘A Baroque Bouquet’ from Trio ZAC, with music by Purcell, Locke, Handel and Bach (6.30pm, Wednesday 20). The Baroque Collective Singers are then joined by soprano Alexandra Kidgell for Purcell Anthems and Songs (9pm, Wednesday 20). 

Trio ZAC
Then there’s an evening of baroque chamber music including music by Cavalli, Corelli and Vivaldi from Alison Bury & Julia Bishop (violins), Catherine Rimer (cello) & Claire Williams (harpsichord) (6.30pm, Thursday 21). They are followed by ‘Baroque Alchemy’ from Piers Adams (recorders) and Lyndy Mayle (keyboard) (9pm, Thursday 21). 

Baroque ensemble incantati present ‘A Garland of Arias and Sinfonias’ from Bach, along with arrangements of traditional Ukrainian & Romanian music (6.30pm, Friday 22) – check out my review last month of their new Bach recording. More Bach follows, with two of his Cello Suites performed by Sebastian Comberti (cello) (9pm, Friday 21). 

Baroque Collective Singers

And the festival ends with the Baroque Collective Singers returning, joined by the Baroque Collective Players, for a performance including Handel’s Four Coronation Anthems, alongside more Handel and Pachelbel’s Canon (7pm, Saturday 23).


John Hancorn
(credit: Robert Knights)

Julia Bishop
(credit: Beth Mercer)

CD Reviews - July 2022

You may have caught Cesca Eaton’s film, Cuckmere: A Portrait back in the 2018 Brighton Festival, shown with a live score by Lewes-based composer Ed Hughes (b.1968) (I reviewed the recording of his score here back in April 2020). The local landscape continues to be an inspiration for his music, and his latest recording is titled Music for the South Downs. Once again there is a film connection – in 2021, Hughes was commissioned by the South Downs National Park Authority to provide a score for a film by Sam Moore celebrating the National Park’s 10th anniversary. This music formed the first movement of his Nonet, here in full, and you can view the film below or here. The Nonet is in three movements, for strings, flute, clarinet, horn, trumpet and piano, performed here by the New Music Players. The opening movement is obviously filmic, with a pastoral flow, gently pulsing brass and rippling violins creating a sense of calm motion. There is a slight sense of ease in the second movement, despite its Tranquil marking, with its use of repeated notes like slightly agitated birdsong, and the atmosphere darkens as the movement progresses. Flowing motion returns in the final movement, with minimalist repletion of figures burbling below slow moving lines, and pulsing chords in the piano part. This combination of steady momentum and lyrical atmosphere runs through the other works here too, with more immediate energy and swirling repletion in the opening movement of Flint, for example – requiring deft precision from the New Music Players. The Sussex landscape is here again, as well as a connection to a Sussex folk song transcribed by George Butterworth in 1912, which inspired the central slow movement. Its tonal lyricism is interrupted with occasional jarring interjections by the violin, disturbing the otherwise gentle calm. Unease is more prevalent in the final movement, with tonal themes trying to burst through the increasingly chromatic turbulence. The two studies, Lunar I & Lunar II were inspired by Isamu Noguchi’s sculptures, exhibited at the Barbican in 2021. There is a lilt to the first study, with lyrical lines weaving around darker harmonies, and the lilting triple time of the second study is put against insistent arpeggios, and swirling, rising flute lines, finally subdued for its quiet ending. Chroma is a single movement work for just strings, and Hughes makes great use of sudden dynamic changes to shift the energy here, from unsettled, quiet rumblings to insistent repeated rocking between chords, with a perpetual motion running beneath in the violins. The final work here, The Woods so Wild, is for piano quartet, and is performed by the Primrose Piano Quartet. The title comes from a Tudor song, ‘Will Yow Walke the Woods soe Wylde’, which also inspired Byrd and Gibbons to write variations, as well as Dowland, who quotes the tune in his ‘Can She Excuse My Wrongs?’. Hughes’ piece explores the consolation provided by the landscape around us, and he began writing it during lockdown. There is a definite sense of consolation in the rippling piano part of the opening movement, with gentle string lines above. Hughes makes use of rich low piano textures in the middle movement, and the final movement has a rolling triple time, with tricky cross-rhythms and pulsing energy. There are strong performances throughout here, and Hughes’ music is always stimulating and full of contrast. Despite being largely landscape-inspired, he never gets stuck in creating a single pastoral atmosphere – there is a constant sense of life, movement and vibrant change here.

Hughes, E. 2022. Music for the South Downs. New Music Players, Primrose Piano Quartet, Ed Hughes. Compact Disc. Divine Art Recordings/Métier msv 28623

And now for two Shostakovich
Symphonies from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Steven Lloyd-Gonzalez. Dmitri Shostakovich’s (1906-1975) Symphony No. 6, following the success of the fifth, promised originally a large-scale setting of a poem about Lenin, but in the event the symphony that he produced was purely instrumental. The structure is also unusual, with a weighty opening slow movement taking up more than half of its duration, followed by two relatively short, faster movements. The moods are also highly contrasting. The Largo has a searing opening with brooding strings, and a keening flute, and instantly here the BBC NOW strings present an intense sound, achieving a sense of sadness without tipping over into a harshness of tone. Lloyd-Gonzalez expertly steers the orchestra through this momentous movement, and the climax is full of heartfelt intensity. The contrast with the second movement couldn’t be stronger, with a tumbling clarinet leading into capering strings, with shrill woodwind outbursts, and here it is the BBC NOW woodwind players turn to shine, with adept playing throughout, particularly from the bassoons. The finale sets off at a gallop, and dances along, leading to a bright, humorously crashing finish. Written in 1945, again, Shostakovich had trailed a different narrative for Symphony No. 9, that this would be a celebration of Soviet victory over the Nazis. But what transpired was altogether more complex, its neo-classical humour certainly not overtly heroic. It opens in playful mood, with bustling strings against a sardonic piccolo theme, and punchy brass. Lloyd-Gonzalez keeps the insistent repetition motoring along to the end, and this is followed by a much more plaintive mood in the second movement, with a tentatively mournful clarinet solo followed by gently throbbing strings, and a lumbering rhythm. A typically Shostakovich gallop follows, with bright woodwind and precise articulation from the strings here. Not for the first time in this recording, the bassoon impresses, with a touching solo from Joshua Wilson. The finale has a building sense of energy, and the BBC NOW strings avoid their picky textures becoming too short. Lloyd-Gonzalez drives the momentum to the emphatic full orchestral climax, and a fiendishly galloping coda brings things to a lively end. These are strong performances of these two tricky symphonies, and I look forward to seeing more from Lloyd-Gonzalez.

Shostakovich, D. 2022. Symphonies Nos. 6 & 9. BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Steven Lloyd-Gonzalez. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR120. 

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in Scene, July 2022) 

Brighton16 - Towards Expressionism - Saturday 9 July

Brighton16 will be singing music by Rheinberger, Brahms, Smyth, Bruckner, Reger, Schoenberg, and Strauss' 16-part anthem, Der Abend.

7pm, Saturday 9 July, St Michael & All Angels Church, Brighton

Entrance free


Tuesday, 7 June 2022

CD Reviews - June 2022

In 2018, conductor John Wilson relaunched the Sinfonia of London, a session orchestra with a long history, particularly in recording film music, and for their second recording with Chandos, they focus on German and Austrian composers, post World War II. Richard Strauss (1864-1949) composed his Metamorphosen, for 23 solo strings in 1945, and it is a heartfelt elegy and a musical realisation in many ways of the horrors that had been experienced in the preceding war. The Sinfonia of London strings here produce a deeply resonant and rich sound, and Chandos deserve credit for achieving precision in the balance, especially when all 23 lines are active. No detail is obscured, and Wilson steers the dynamic swells expertly too. In Strauss there are many climactic moments, and it can lose direction, but here there is a definite trajectory to the warmer major passionate centre, before the opening tragic lamenting material returns following a sudden violent stop. Yet despite the title, there is no metamorphosis into a positive new world – Strauss marks the end ‘In Memoriam’, and the subside into quiet darkness is achingly sad. The short Intermezzo for String Orchestra, Op. 8 by Franz Schreker (1878-1934) is an interesting work, with an opening reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (written at around the same time), but moments of sweet, pastoral string writing too, and perhaps less overall bite. It is given a richly sensitive reading here, with Wilson’s attention to dynamic contrasts providing shape to its overt romanticism. The second half of the disc is given over to the Symphonische Serenade, op. 39 by Erich Korngold (1897-1957). This was composed just before Korngold returned to Austria from the US, during which time he had carved out a successful career in Hollywood, pretty much establishing the Hollywood movie soundworld of the time, and just after he had a heart attack which required him to step back from recording and conducting. Its opening movement shows an immediate shift from the more obvious ‘Hollywood’ sound, with some strident harmonies and tensely dramatic writing. The second movement Intermezzo has virtuosic pizzicato writing, and here the Sinfonia of London players excel, with tight ensemble and rhythmic energy, making the strange brief interjections of glassy bridge bowing and swoops stand out even more. The Lento religioso is heartfelt, but with a Mahlerian profundity that is arresting, and Wilson and the players give this sumptuous weight without any wallowing, and the repeated notes throb with insistent intensity. The violent outburst which interrupts the solace of the central solo passage is positively shocking here, and Wilson certainly extracts maximum drama from the score. The Finale sets off at a cracking pace, and is full of urgent energy. Wilson and the Sinfonia of London are highly impressive throughout these performances, bringing energy, precision and a glorious string sound to this rich repertoire.

Various. 2022. Metamorphosen - Strauss/Korngold/Schreker. Sinfonia of London, John Wilson. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc. Chandos CHSA 5292.

Now for Bach with a difference. The ensemble incantati, which consists of Emma Murphy (recorders), Rachel Stott (viola d’amore) and Asako Morikawa (viola da gamba), have collected together a selection of J. S Bach’s (1685-1750) keyboard works to perform in various combinations of instruments. Pianists will be familiar with the Two-Part Inventions and Sinfonias – basically pieces with two and three separate lines, with an educational intent, to develop playing the independent lines together. The same applies to his Trio Sonatas, or Organ Trios as they were actually written, which involve three parts – essentially two hands and the feet. In playing these with two or three separate instruments, immediately the individual lines come into their own, and no fluidity is lost through trying to negotiate playing them together on a keyboard. But it is in the different timbres of the instruments that add something new here. And that’s where the flexibility of Murphy’s different recorders and voice flutes is a bonus – so sometimes a warm tenor recorder is matched with the sonorous viola da gamba, or a brighter soprano recorder is paired with the slightly more brittle sound of the viola d’amore. They are also careful here in their selection, with the darker, more sombre pieces (eg. the Sinfonia No. 4, or the mournfully sighing No. 9) contrasted with the bright, lighter examples (Inventions Nos. 1 and 2, for example). There are also beautiful renditions of Bach’s chorale tune arrangements, such as the prayerfully lilting Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, and the joyful, dancing Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend. They end their disc with the Trio Sonata No. 3, with more virtuosic lines for the alto recorder in its first movement, a lightly singing central movement, and a bright (if slightly stately for ‘vivace’) finale. This is then followed by a wonderfully graceful reading of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, with the viola d’amore this time taking centre stage, and the tenor recorder and viola da gamba providing subtle inner and lower lines. A delightful collection, highly recommended.

Brighton Early Music Festival – Midsummer Season, June 2022

Following a highly successful midsummer season last year, BREMF are back this summer with a weekend of events exploring Transition, which will form a year-round theme for the festival.

The weekend begins with In Transit to the Baroque – ensemble In Echo perform music by Semisy, Willaert, Bertali and Frescobaldi, exploring instrumental music’s journey from the Renaissance into the Baroque periods (7.30pm, Friday 24, St Bartholomew’s Church, Brighton).

Later that night, BREMF Consort of Voices perform sacred music and chant from the Night Offices of Compline and Matins, with music by Tye, Tallis, White, Sheppard, Browne, Palestrina and Victoria (9pm, Friday 24, St Bart’s).

Puppets and instruments combine for a performance by Rust & Stardust for ‘primary-aged children and the young in spirit’ – Endo the Earthworm explores nature in transition, with two performances (Saturday 25, 11am at Royal Spa, Brighton & 2.30pm at The Crew Club, Whitehawk).

Joglaresa are joined by the BREMF Community Choir for ¡Bailemos!, celebrating in style the legacy of founder, Belinda Sykes, who sadly passed away recently. Expect a joyful party of music-making! (5pm, Saturday 25, Royal Spa).

Folk in Transition
explores music from the British Isles to the New World, with traditional ballads, Irish jugs, Scottish reels and Appalachian bluegrass, performed by Brighton folk trio Hope Cove (8pm, Saturday 25, Royal Spa).

Aradhana Arts perform Indian Classical music and dance in The Daksha Yagna, a powerful mythological story from the ancient Hindu scriptures (3pm, Sunday 26, Royal Spa). 

And the Midsummer Season ends with Fair Oriana peforming Eliza is the Fairest Queen, with popular songs from the reigns of two queen Elizabeths, including Tudor-tinted arrangements of Vera Lynn, Aretha Franklin and The Beatles (6pm, Sunday 26, Royal Spa).


Some tickets voluntary, with suggested donations or pay what you can – check for details.



Friday, 20 May 2022

Singing melodies and rapid-fire showmanship from Alexei Grynyuk in Brighton

1pm, Thursday 19 May, 2022 

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Variations Sérieuses in D minor, Op. 54

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Four Impromptus, D899

Franz Liszt (1811-1886): LitanieS562/1, piano transcr. from Schubert's Am Tage Aller Seelen, D343

Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 9 in E flat major 'Carnival in Pest', S244/9

'From his opening prayerful statement of the theme onwards, he ensured the melody sang through at all times'.

'Grynyuk opened the C minor with a captivating pianissimo, and the dynamic contrasts here were arresting'.

'Grynyuk’s warm tone made the lyrical melody sing out of the rich texture'.

'Grynyuk also took great delight in the jaunty rhythms and cheeky ornamentation as each melody was introduced – I’m sure there was a twinkle in his eye once or twice – before the fireworks took over each time'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Monday, 9 May 2022

CD Reviews - May 2022

Following on from their two volumes of Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartets, the Doric String Quartet are now joined by Timothy Ridout (viola) for a disc of his String Quintets. Mendelssohn wrote just two of these, going with the viola added to string quartet combination, favoured by Mozart and Brahms, as opposed to adding a cello, which Boccherini and Schubert did. Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 1, composed when he was 17, came hot on the heels of the successful premiere of his glorious Octet. Ever the reviser, it was another five years before he published both. Its opening movement has a leisured warmth, with only brief hints of darker moods in its development, before it gently dances to a quiet ending. The Intermezzo, with its singing melodic idea is sensitive and elegiac. Intensity builds over warm lower strings, with the rhythmic pace of the throbbing repeated figure increasing. It never feels totally settled, despite its calm ending. We’re in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ territory in the Scherzo, with skittering fairy music led off by the first viola. The players here give this precision and clarity, yet avoid it becoming too dry, and there is some dramatic scraping from the cello, not holding back from a harshly biting timbre. Yet once again, the movement disappears into nothing. Whilst not quite reaching the heights of exuberance of the Octet, the finale is full of joyful energy, set up by its lively triplet upbeat. Alex Redington on first violin shines in the rippling runs, and sings over the rumbling lower instruments. Energy levels ramp up and up, leading to the joyous conclusion. The String Quintet No. 2 came some 18 or so years later, with much of the same sense of energy but perhaps less of the unfettered joyfulness of his youthful works. The opening movement has an athletic first violin part over a tremolo accompaniment. The whirling triplet rhythms mean there is always a sense of movement, and these drive on, becoming more insistent, building to a full-on emphatic conclusion. In the dancing, lilting staccato of the second movement, once again the players here avoid it becoming to picky, maintaining a sense of the melodic material and the dance in an masterclass of control. But it is the intense pathos of the slow movement – essentially a funeral march – that is most striking about this work. From a darkly pianissimo opening, cello scales rise and a slow relentless march emerges. There are drum-like battering effects, and heartfelt laments from the violins. A nostalgic A major melody provides some temporary relief, but it is short-lived, and the agitation of the march increases. Yet Mendelssohn can’t leave us totally in the dark, as the movement suddenly turns at the end to a triumphant D major, before subsiding into a gentle, calm end. The finale, perhaps a little incongruously after the deep intensity of the previous movement, bursts forth with a jolly, energetic theme. This theme provides most of the material here, and its contrapuntal development perhaps loses a little direction at times, but Mendelssohn eventually pulls everything to a suitably emphatic close. Throughout these fascinating and underperformed works, the Doric String Quartet and Ridout are alive to the Mendessohnian flashes of joy and energy, yet they are also alert to the finer detail. They know when to provide warmth, but also when to give edge to their sound too. Highly recommended.

Mendelssohn, F. The String Quintets. Doric String Quartet, Timothy Ridout. Compact Disc. Chandos CHAN 20218.

Arc I is the first of a series of three recordings by American pianist Orion Weiss. This first album features three works from the years 1911-1913. Weiss describes the trajectory of the series as like an inverted rainbow, and this first volume’s ‘steps here head downhill, beginning from hope and proceeding down to despair’. We’ll have to wait for the next disc to see things reach their lowest before renewal and rebirth are promised in the final volume. So here we begin with Enrique Granados’ (1867-1916) Goyescas, Op. 11, a Romantic masterpiece of invention. From the warmly expressive, watery cascades of the opening movement ‘Los reuiebros’ (Flattery), through to the macabre, stuttering dance of the final ‘Epilogo: Serenata del espectro’ (Epilogue: Serenade of the Ghost), this monumental and atmospheric suite is full of Granados’ extravagantly ornamented and improvisatory virtuosity. Weiss is commanding in the frenzied, passionate outbursts in ‘El Amor y la Muerte – Balada’ (Love and death – Ballade), but equally delicate in the nightingale’s song of the fifth movement. There’s a skip in his step in the moments of courting in the opening movement, and he ends the suite with ominous tolling bells before disappearing with a final mercurial wisp. Leoš Janáček’s (1854-1928) In the Mists follows – a shorter suite, and more introspective than the Granados. There are typical Janáček chromatic twists and turns in the melodies, and his motif of death, the falling minor third, features large. Weiss captures particularly well the claustrophobic, suppressed passion of the final movement, which breaks out with melismatic, singing outbursts and increasing intensity, before defeat in its dark sombre conclusion. Weiss ends with Alexander Scriabin’s (1871-1915) Piano Sonata No. 9, Op. 68, ‘Black Mass’. Full of ‘satanic’ tri-tones and chromaticism, begins hopeful but descends into darkness and despair, and Weiss makes the low rumblings and persistent trilling effects feel chillingly ominous. There is a real sense of the second, more hopeful melodic idea insistently writhing as if trying to escape, before being ultimately subsumed into a frightening march. This is an impressive display from Weiss, and sadly speaks to current anxieties and a sense of despair. Arc II promises to take us to the lowest point of grief and loss, but hopefully Arc II will bring us some hope for the future – much needed at present.

Various. 2022. Arc I - Granados, Janáček, Scriabin. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR127.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in Scene, May 2022)